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Keeping Donahue in Ithaca?

With the outstanding success of this year's men's basketball team and the universal outpouring of support that the team has received from students, alumni, and the University, the question in everybody's minds is whether or not Coach Donahue will stay in Ithaca.

There's no debate over the fact that Donahue is not only a fantastic basketball coach, but also an incredibly classy mentor for the team and a tremendous role-model for the Cornell community -- the type of guy who can make even a non-sports follower swell with pride.

First, there is Doanhue's support for children and athletes with autism. Second is Donahue's school wide email thanking Cornellians for their "tremendous support throughout the season and into the amazing post-season" and pledging to "look forward to next year's Big Red basketball season!" Then, finally, there was Donahue's abillity to capture the Cornell mantra so succinctly, telling the Times, "We’re the common man’s Ivy League."

But there are a couple of looming problems that could limit Donahue's tenure in Ithaca: money, career prospects, and location.

Unfortunately, the success of big-time athletics often depends on the issue of funding and money, and many schools are willing to pay extravagant salaries to their coaches to ensure a winning tradition. And while multi-million dollar contracts may be the norm for SEC schools that spends ten of millions of dollars per year on their basketball team, that's not the case for the Ivy League, were Cornell spent $800,000 on their basketball team last year. Donahue could easily triple his salary elsewhere.

But even if Cornell decided to match any salary offer Donahue received, it's not clear that it would be worth the investment. Certainly, alumni and students would enjoy continued success in basketball, but that might be at expense of the school's storied hockey program (now programs?). Additionally, research by Cornell economist Robert Frank has demonstrated that additional spending on intercollegiate athletics results in little to no direct or indirect returns for colleges, in what essentially ends up being a zero-sum arms race.

Because, really, are you going to donate more money to Cornell this year on account of a Sweet Sixteen trip? If so, let the theatre department know as soon as possible before they are forced to cut more faculty. I'm talking about you, Sandy Weill:

“I graduated 55 years ago from Cornell, so I’ve waited a long time to see them do this well,” Weill said in a telephone interview today. “Everyone I’ve spoken to in relation to the school, here and abroad, says it’s a wake-up call for pride in our institution.”

Secondly, if Coach Donahue is serious about climbing the ranks of college basketball and becoming more successful, he will probably have to start coaching in a different league than the Ivies. It's not by accident that only one Ivy team has made it to the Sweet Sixteen from the Ivies in the last thirty years -- it is by design. The Ivy President's purposefully want the the league to be composed of student-athletes, and disallow any of the recruiting or frills that are bestowed upon players in other leagues. So the Ivy League simply will not have the talent to compete at a national stage year-in, year-out.

Finally, there's the acknowledgment that Donahue is a Philly boy "born and raised" and wants to move his family closer to the East Coast. And, well, the needs of family often trump all other considerations.

But let's hope that Donahue will give strong consideration to staying part of the Big Red Family. Because, well, more more money and additional success/pressure isn't everything in life. And USAirways flies direct from Philly to Ithaca.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on March 27, 2010 (#)

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